Sandro Ivo Bartoli: Johann Sebastian Bach: Preludes, Fantasias and Minuets
Solaire Records

Sandro Ivo Bartoli's piano artistry recently graced two Solaire volumes of Jeffrey Roden's Threads of a Prayer. Now the Tuscany-born virtuoso turns his attention to Bach in a set-list that pairs an abundance of lesser-known preludes and minuets with two major works for the keyboard: the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. In both composer-related cases, Bartoli's playing suits the temperament of the music, which is about as contrasting as two collections could possibly be: the settings on Threads of a Prayer are austere meditations shorn of all superfluous ornamentation; diametric to Roden's material are Bach's pieces, which, by comparison, are in many instances dense, vivacious, expressive, and action-packed.

Bartoli's specializations extend far beyond the worlds of two composers. In the early ‘90s, he turned his attention to the Italian piano literature of the early twentieth century and developed a reputation as one of its leading interpreters, and he's also become known as a proficient interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. The Bach project is an especially personal one for the pianist, however: his love for the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue began when as a fifteen-year-old he heard it for the first time played on an organ in Pisa. Further to that, he gravitated towards the little preludes and minuets for the project because he learned them as a child and developed an intense love for them. In Bartoli's own words, “I usually play very complex repertoire, lots of notes all the time. Going back to these little pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach gives me a chance to clear my head.”

Though the recording presents thirty tracks, the minuets and preludes are miniatures that last for a minute or two at a time; such brevity makes for an effective complement to the longer settings, for example the fourteen-minute total of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. Easing the listener into the recording is the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, with the graceful “Prelude,” explorative “Fugue,” and exuberant “Allegro” providing an excellent collective scene-setter. Six brief preludes and three minuets follow, all executed with flair and encompassing a broad range, from joyful and playful to melancholy and introspective. Sequenced between that initial set and twelve others are three “Fantasias,” one of them, a brooding and dramatic reverie, the release's longest piece at eight minutes. As fleeting as the preludes are, they're not without charm, especially when, despite their concision, they contain multitudes, stylistic and emotional. Believed to have been composed between 1717 and 1723, the set-concluding Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue most likely began as improvisations that were then formally transcribed and are now rightfully regarded as dazzling staples of the keyboard repertoire.

Glenn Gould's name invariably arises when Bach and piano pieces are paired, so much so that Bartoli made a conscious effort to ensure his playing didn't sound as if he was imitating anyone else, the Canadian legend included. That said, there are moments on the recording when Bartoli's playing does call to mind that of his late counterpart (the former's usage of a beer crate for a chair also begs comparison to Gould's well-known choice of a lower seating position when playing); during at least a few of the preludes (e.g., 935 and 937), it wouldn't have surprised me had Gould's vocal accompaniment suddenly emerged alongside the piano, so much do the performances remind me of his own Bach. That said, Bartoli demonstrates an exemplary command of the material throughout, with his sensitive attunement to matters of tempo, touch, and dynamics and lyrical interpretations revealing a deep connection to the composer and grasp of his soundworld.

As with all of Solaire's releases, the presentation of the release impresses. Comfortably nestled within an attractive slipcase are the CD case and a booklet containing photographs and articles. In addition to a detailed piece by Tobias Fischer that delves into the historical background of the release's material and the different approaches artists such as Gould and Uri Cane have brought to Bach's music, there's an article by Bartoli himself, who memorably describes the recording's contents as “a kaleidoscope of colours and emotions, a priceless treasure trove of musical marvels”—to these ears, an apt and accurate characterization.

November 2017